Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:25 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 1:25 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I strongly support the proposal of my noble friend Lord Foulkes for a constitutional convention. I am not instinctively in favour of royal commission-type arrangements. I tend to take the view of Harold Wilson that royal commissions take minutes and last years. However, on something as profound as major constitutional change—including the replacement of this House with a federal senate on the lines set out by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, of an equivalent to the Bundesrat, which I agree could be a model for the reform of this House and the wider reform of the United Kingdom—I do not think it will be possible to get to that kind of arrangement without a constitutional convention.

I pay tribute to my noble friend and the many others who made a success of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s. This, without doubt, paved the way for the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements and rescued us from the bitterly divisive and partisan state that the devolution debate had got into in the 1970s and 1980s. It created a consensus and, although it did not at the time include the Conservative Party, as my noble friend said, many Conservatives were sympathetic. Indeed, historically, the Conservative Party got to devolution in Scotland first with Alec Douglas-Home and his commission going back to the 1970s. It created a consensus which meant that the new Scottish Parliament arrangements bedded down quickly. So I am sympathetic to it.

I absolutely agree that the position of the Labour Party in opposition gives us a golden opportunity to take the lead while the Government obsess over Brexit. I believe that Brexit will no longer happen—that we will have a referendum and it will be ended. However, whether or not that is the case, we will have to move on to the reform of the constitution of the United Kingdom—not least because of the issues that Brexit has raised and which, to some extent, led to Brexit—because of the great sense of alienation in the Midlands and the north of England, which have not benefited from substantial devolution.

I wish to make two comments on the work of the convention and the form its proposals might take. My noble friend and others said that there has not been substantial devolution in England, but that is not true of London. The four great constitutional reforms affecting the United Kingdom which the Labour Government, of which we were proud to be members, carried through were the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement, the National Assembly of Wales, the Parliament of Scotland and, crucially, the establishment of the Mayor and the Assembly for London. In their own way, all four of those reforms have been successful—not least the creation of the Mayor and the Assembly for London. The test of any institution is: if it did not exist, would you recreate it? If your Lordships’ House did not exist, I am not sure that anyone would recreate it, but I am absolutely sure that if there was not a Mayor of London we would definitely seek to put one in place, together with accountability arrangements such as the Assembly. The other test of a machine is the work that it does. If one looks at what has been accomplished by the three Mayors of London since the office was established in 2000, it has been an outstanding success. I take a particular interest in infrastructure and I emphasise that the renovation of London’s transport infrastructure would not have taken place with anything like the degree of investment and efficiency if it was not for the Mayor of London.

Earlier at Question Time we debated the regrettable cost overruns of Crossrail. Crossrail will open and will represent a dramatic transformation of London’s public transport capacity, but it would not exist at all but for the Mayor of London. It is not just about the political authority of the mayor but also, crucially, the mayor’s tax-raising powers, including the ability to raise a supplementary business rate which two successive mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, persuaded the London business community to sign up to because they were so desperate to have a credible scheme for improving London’s public transport capacity. The mayor put forward a plan for which he managed to gain consent from the Labour Government and then the subsequent coalition Government. There was a strong belief on the part of the London business community that the project would be delivered that led to it being advanced. The same is true of the congestion charge in London, which would not conceivably have happened without a mayor, and the doubling of the rate of investment in London’s public transport.

I have always adopted the Chinese adage that R&D stands for “rob and duplicate”. We need to see that when you have institutions that work well, the job of effective policymakers is to rob and duplicate them. What we now need is arrangements such as those that apply in London with the mayor and the Assembly in all the major metropolitan parts of England. It is starting to happen with the metro mayors, but they have nothing like the power or the resources of the Mayor of London. The task I strongly encourage the Government to undertake, because they are sympathetic to business and have taken steps forward with mayoralties outside London, is to significantly enhance those mayors’ powers, including tax-raising powers, and their accountability arrangements. That can and should happen now. It should be a key part of what is happening in this thing called the northern powerhouse, which at the moment is largely vacuous. If that happened, it would provide the building blocks for the establishment of a federal second Chamber based in England on the major cities and city regions. You would then need to bring counties together with similar arrangements in those parts of England not covered.

I strongly welcome what my noble friend said. I note that there is a broad consensus across the House in support of his recommendations. It is not total because we have constitutional conservatives who essentially do not like any change and provide elegant reasons for why no change should happen, but the consensus seems to extend to most parts of the House and we need to build on that.

In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, cited Churchill’s once radical views on reform of the House of Lords, which he described as,

“one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible, absentee”— he was never given to understatement. He also said that to abuse the Government was,

“an inalienable right of every British citizen”.

That is certainly true, but we hold the Minister in very great esteem and we do not abuse him. We look forward to his constructive response to my noble friend’s proposal.